Art Restoration: Laurie Pepper and Widow's Taste Records

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It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, "In American life, there are no second acts," which means he clearly was not an Art Pepper fan.

Pepper was one of the great alto saxophonist stars of the bop era, famed not only as a Stan Kenton sideman, but also for his own albums as a leader. In 1951, he placed second in the alto saxophone category in Downbeat Magazine's annual poll, losing by fourteen votes to Charlie Parker. Tragically, Pepper's drug habit meant that he spent way too much of the fifties in jail, despite playing some of the best jazz to come out of Los Angeles in the 1950's. He spent almost all of 1960-66 at San Quentin. (Merle Haggard was there from 1957-60, but I haven't been able to find if their interments overlapped).

Pepper might not have made it back from heroin-induced oblivion but for his going in 1969 to the first residential drug treatment center, Synanon, in Northern California, where he stayed three years, got clean, met his wife Laurie, and—very much with her help—reclaimed his musical life. In 1972, he and Laurie started writing his autobiography, Straight Life (Schirmer Books, 1979), probably the greatest and most troubling jazz autobiography ever. Certainly it is the most praised. Pepper writes with brutal frankness about drugs, music, prison, other musicians, the women in his life, rehab, and anything else that was ever important to him. It's one of the darkest memoirs I've encountered, but it fortunately ends happily—or, at least, happily enough. In 1975, he returned to recording, and kept his nose clean enough to get the job done. Most nights, though not all.

Laurie was the administrative power and organizatinal backbone who made Art's return possible. When he got out of Synanon, he came back to Los Angeles and went to work for a friend's health food bakery, got on the methadone program, and started taking small steps to professional music-making again. At the bakery, he had a small office where he kept the books.

"In his little office at the bakery, he had all his album covers up on the wall, and all of his awards. He knew who he was, but as far as he was concerned, that was it. He did not think in terms of a legacy," says Laurie Pepper over Sunday brunch at the Brite Spot, a chic Echo Park diner that is trying to still seem funky. In the steep hills a few blocks to the northeast of the Spot is where photographer William Claxton took the famous shot that is the cover of Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section (Contemporary, 1957), which saw Pepper fronting the 1957 Miles Davis team of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. Another photo from that very same session was used for the cover of the paperback editions of Straight Life.

Art Pepper—Unreleased Art Vol 4"He thought he'd be forgotten," she continues, "that he'd never been in New York, he'd never toured Europe. He'd never done any of the things you have to do. So he didn't think that little bit of stuff he'd recorded for Contemporary or the few little bootlegs or the stuff he did with Chet Baker for Capitol—he didn't think of that as any kind of legacy."

That changed with a great deal of positive critical attention paid to his return to the land of the jazz living, as well as the enormous acclaim paid his book. Touring and recording again in a high profile way meant not only that Pepper had returned, but that he'd done so in a way that demanded a standard of quality be met. Unlike a great many jazzmen who spent the seventies recording anything, anytime, anywhere for anyone who would meet their price, Pepper took it seriously. His recording sessions showed real forethought, and, when touring, he did everything he could to avoid using local pickup bands. No matter how good, pickup bands aren't the same as an ensemble that has developed the music together. Pepper knew he'd gone from saxophonist to bandleader. It didn't change what he did as much as it made him dig his heels in more as a bandleader.

"He worked really hard," recalls Laurie, "and he was real serious. He felt a lot more pressure, which he did not like. But the pressures he put on himself were much more intense than anything put on him by normal people. He put higher standards on himself than most people would. He was very responsible. I mean, he learned about being a bandleader from being with Stan Kenton. That's a high standard for anyone to hold himself up to."

Laurie Pepper made sure that things were done right. She managed his career, and helped him finally get the all-important New York and Europe work. In 1977, he did one of the all-important things—a three-night stint at the Village Vanguard (although while binging on cocaine). Later that year, he toured Japan for the first time.

She starting recording these gigs almost as quickly as she could get her hands on her own tape deck.

"At a certain point, when we started touring a bit," she recalls, "Art himself suggested—he knew I was good with electronics—that we buy a tape recorder and a good microphone, and record the gigs. I bought a portable Sony TCD 9 tape recorder and a really good microphone. It had a serious microphone jack. From my own record company, nothing I recorded on that setup has been released, but back when other people wanted stuff from me... There were a few things. A version of 'Patricia,' from a concert in Atlanta that Milcho Leviev, (the first Art Pepper Quartet pianist) caused Art to whisper in my ear, 'Wow, Milcho has learned a lot from me.'"

She wound up with a formidable stack of tapes, sometimes coming from outside sources.

"I recorded a lot," she continues, "but bootleggers were recording all the time. There's this guy Rocco in Belgium who is one of the major collectors. He actually came here to Los Angeles on his own dime. He had all these bootlegs, and, going through them, he was the one who found the Stuttgart Concert [Unreleased Art, Vol 5 (Widow's Taste, 2010)], and he was one of the people who found a good copy of the Croydon Concert [Unreleased Art, Vol 3 (Widow's Taste, 2008)].

"Rocco, meanwhile, has been digitizing everything. He worked sixteen hours a day. I couldn't even drag him out of the house, and he'd never been to America before. He gave me a list in Excel that looks like a complete diary of every gig Art played. But the big thing is from the tour of Japan we did in 1981. For this tour, we were working with a promoter we'd worked with before, so I asked for—and got—the same soundman for every gig. Until then, every time we went to a new venue, there'd be a new soundman, and they were all kids, and it was just hard to get decent sound.

"But there was one guy I liked, and he would talk to me, he taught me a few words of Japanese, and he was very good. I asked the promoter if we could have him for the whole tour, and we got him and his equipment for the whole tour. And he recorded every single night of the whole tour on cassette, and they're amazing. The quality is so good. And every night of that tour was amazing. This is the stuff I'm going to release if I live long enough, which is my plan.

"Another reason I've been going over all that stuff is because Cheryl Pawelski, who has (vinyl specialty label) Omnivore Records is doing a series of Art Pepper vinyl singles called Neon Art, on neon-colored vinyl. She got that idea from a version of 'Red Car' I put up on Facebook. We have these 'orphans'—tracks that don't really exist in the context of an album that I can release with Cheryl."

The Widow's Taste series covers Pepper from his earliest period to literally weeks before his passing. The double-disc Unreleased Art, Vol 4: The Art History Project (Widow's Taste, 2009) serves as 31-year overview, and it makes for a perfect introduction to the uninitiated. The aforementioned Stuttgart and Croydon volumes are truly special, as is the deservedly beloved 1980 recording from London's Ronnie Scott's, Blues For The Fisherman: Unreleased Art Pepper, Vol 6 (Widow's Taste, 2011).

"I love Art's playing, "Laurie says, as I call to the waiter for the check, "because it's a narrative when Art plays. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has logic. It has melody. When people play music you can't dance to or can't weep to, I wonder what it's for. With Art, you never ever wonder."

Photo Credits

Page 1: Andy Freeberg

Page 2, Art & Laurie Pepper: Brian O'Connor

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